Why Cuomo isn’t touching Bridgegate

why-cuomo-isnt-touching-bridgegate
Andrew Cuomo. (Governor's office)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Blake Zeff

Follow: feed

Chris Christie’s bridge scandal may have dented his governorship (not to mention his 2016 hopes), but it’s also revealed a hero in a story full of bad guys.

While scheming New Jersey aides joyfully ordered three lanes to the George Washington Bridge closed, emails show that Patrick Foye, the New York appointee to the Port Authority, angrily declared the plot unsafe and illegal, and ordered it reversed.

The governor who appointed him must be pretty proud, right?

If so, Andrew Cuomo’s not telling. In fact, despite what appears to be a positive narrative for the New York side of the Port Authority operation, Cuomo has treated the entire bridge affair as if he were a hostile witness. He’s been thoroughly reluctant to discuss the matter, sticking to terse, passive, periodic statements, like, “I don’t know anything more than basically has been in the newspaper, because it’s basically a New Jersey issue.”

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

Naturally, Cuomo’s reluctance to articulate an intelligible position on such a noteworthy matter--one involving a bistate authority he’s half responsible for, no less--has led to intense speculation in New York political circles about what the governor is actually thinking.

But Cuomo has got a number of reasons to keep well clear of the bridge mess, beginning with the fact that it’s not currently his problem.

There’s an old press secretary maxim: If there’s a story about bad news, stay out of it at all costs. That means if a major employer is moving out of town and taking its jobs elsewhere, don’t bother issuing a sad statement. You’ll end up in the story about horrible news, and risk having readers associate you with it. In this particular instance, Cuomo has no motivation to be associated with a story about horrible government abuse.

Cuomo also seems to have decided that he’s got no good reason to get into a fight with Christie, and plenty of reason to preserve their de facto non-aggression pact.

Christie, even now, is in a position to make Cuomo’s life more difficult than it needs to be, as the New York governor prepares to run for re-election. While Cuomo is a virtual lock to win his 2014 race, with more than $30 million in the bank and extremely solid approval ratings statewide, he wants to amass the biggest possible victory he can, the better to make the case for national office should the opportunity arise.

There’s only one Republican out there considering the race who might be able to deny Cuomo his laugher: Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. Astorino wouldn’t have much chance of actually winning, but he’s no joke. He’s a popular Republican in a Democratic county, represents the suburbs, has access to some wealthy donors, may appeal to so-called white ethnic voters, and could play upstate.

Christie (for the moment, anyway) is the head of the Republican Governors Association. As the leader of the RGA, he plays a key role in deciding which gubernatorial races the national Republican Party decides to get serious about. In late November, a report in the New York Post suggested that Christie had spent an hour meeting with Astorino, pledging his support and trying to sell him on running against Cuomo.

This would have been quite a normal thing for a head of the RGA to do. But both governors immediately rushed to deny the report. 

“I can tell you this: I spoke to Governor Christie this morning who told me the exact opposite,” Cuomo said at a press conference. “And I’ll leave it at that.”

Christie would later corroborate Cuomo’s story.

And then, talking about the whole bridge thing, Cuomo said, “I’m sure it is as Governor Christie says it is.”

But perhaps the most compelling reason of all for Cuomo to steer well clear of any unnecessary engagement with the Christie mess is a legal one. Multiple formal inquiries are now being conducted, including one by the U.S. attorney. If Cuomo’s office appears to have a major role, even a positive one, his staff’s emails could end up subpoenaed, and some could be asked to testify. (There’s speculation this may happen anyway, as Foye already spoke in front of the New Jersey legislature).

Even if there’s nothing for Cuomo to hide when it comes to the bridge scandal—and certainly all the visible wrongdoing has been on the Jersey side—the last thing a politician wants is for his top staff’s communications to be open to prosecutorial scrutiny. What started out as a probe of Whitewater ended up as a completely unrelated investigation into infidelity. Every politician knows this.

Although Cuomo, a former prosecutor himself, is notoriously careful about internal communications—reportedly using untraceable Blackberry PIN messages—no politician, let alone one up for re-election this year and with major ambitions beyond 2014, wants any internal deliberations open to this kind of review.

Of course, there’s the possibility that has most intrigued the New York press corps so far: whether Cuomo knows more about the incident than he’s saying. “What Cuomo was aware of has become a point of intrigue in Empire State circles,” Politico’s Maggie Haberman noted. “Political chatter in New York has focused on what Cuomo knew about the scandal coming to light, and when,” echoed her colleague Edward-Isaac Dovere.

“The question that I have, in terms of the New York side, is what Foye said to his boss—to Cuomo,” said MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki, who has led much of the reporting on the scandal. “And what Cuomo did if Foye shared that same memo and those same observations with him. I think that question needs some exploration.”

That’s right, of course, but expect Cuomo to put off the explaining for as long as possible. Patrick Foye’s indignant emails are doing most of the talking about New York’s role in this story. Why would the governor try to compete with that?